Making something out of hundreds of unfinished subdivisions

The economic crisis of recent years had broad effects including stalling the construction of hundreds of suburban subdivisions across the United States:

There are hundreds of zombie subdivisions like this one scattered across the country. They’re one of the most visible reminders of the housing boom and bust, planned and paved in the heady days where it seemed that everybody wanted a home in the suburbs, and could afford it, too. But when the economy tanked, many of the developers behind these subdivisions went belly-up, and construction stopped. In some cases, a few people have moved into homes in these half-built subdivisions, requiring services to be delivered there. In others, the land is empty, except for roads, sidewalks, and the few street signs that haven’t been stolen yet. In some counties in the West, anywhere from 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant, according to the Sonoran Institute…

But if roads have been paved or a developer has installed infrastructure improvements, it’s very hard to just revert the space back to farmland. Local governments who try to stop building—even if there is little demand—can be sued for preventing development where it had once been approved…Still, some developers  have come up with creative ways to turn zombie subdivisions into something other than rows upon rows of empty McMansions.

Maricopa, Arizona, for instance, had issued about 600 residential building permits a month during the boom, and then saw many of these developments stall. Rather than just wait to see if demand would ever return, the city hooked up a Catholic church with the owners of an empty development. The church had been looking to erect a new building, and was searching for a site with existing water and infrastructure services. The developer had been looking for someone willing to build. With a little bit of rezoning help from the city, the church could start building on the land…

And in Teton County, Idaho, population around 11,000, where the Sonoran Institute estimates that 68 percent of land parceled into subdivisions was undeveloped, local officials passed ordinances that would allow subdivisions to be rezoned. One development, called Canyon Creek Ranch, changed its plans from a resort with 350 lots to a community project with only 21 lots, shrinking the infrastructure price tag by 97 percent and reducing the environmental impacts.

From zombie pedestrians to zombie subdivisions. It sounds like communities have to hope that someone wants the land – whether a residential developers or some other user – so they can do something with it. As noted, communities might be able to speed that up by rezoning the land for other uses. Perhaps this might lead to some ultra-flexible zoning where these spaces could be residential, commercial, industrial, or other as long as somebody has a plan.

I do wonder how many of these subdivisions would have legitimately filled up. Where were all the people going to come from? If they moved to the new homes, they opened up other units. Are there so many people rooming together or living with family to create the demand for all these new houses?

My suggestion for what these settings can be used for: sets for all of the post-apocalyptic or dystopian TV shows and movies. Studios could likely get cheap long-term deals on these properties and use them however they wish.

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